A photobook that is almost 50% composed of photographs by Eugene Atgetis going to be difficult for me to objectively review. I have to admit that I have a relatively strong bias about Atget, because I like his straight forward photographic content so much. Perhaps what I had not anticipated was that by studying Rauschenberg’s rephotographing of Atget’s work, besides studying Rasuchenberg’s work, what more I might understand about Atget’s photographs.
Christopher Rauschenberg’s Paris Changing, Revisiting Eugene Atget’s Paris is a photobook that I had been looking forward to reviewing. The concept behind this book was a chance photograph of an Eugene Atget composition made by Rauschenberg, which subsequently inspired him to return Paris to rephotograph as many of Atget’s earlier compositions that he could find. He made three trips to Paris specifically to work on this rephotographing project in the late 1990’s.
The concept of re-photographing earlier photographic work is not a new concept, as explained in the essay by Alison Nordstrom. To varying degree’s, re-photographing has been completed to various degrees by Nichlas Nixon, Douglas Levere, Matthew Buckingham, Omar Khan and the Mark Klett projects. Of these, perhaps the Mark Klett projects are the most rigorous, bordering on a scientific methodology, when he is paying close attention to the time of day, the season, the atmospheric conditions and the lighting, all with an attempt to create an exact replication.
With the Atget matched photograph on the facing spread, you quickly understand that Rauschenberg was not as rigorous in his rephotographing concept. The seasons, time of day, the atmospheric conditions and lighting all vary between the two bodies of work. Eugene Atget had the luxury of understanding that he had on-going local project, that what was not completed in one season, would be continued the next.
In retrospect, we know that Atget only photographed during a certain time of year, something that Bernd & Hiller Beacher realized and applied to their typological photographs in the 1980’s. The other stylistic trait of Atget’s was to photograph early in the morning, when the streets were usually empty of carts and people. That enabled him to concentrate his focus on the line and mass of the building facades and structures. Again, this practice of photographing without the presence of people is another stylistic practice of the new topograhics of the Beachers and Lewis Baltz and currently John Fitts among others.
Perhaps recognizing his time constraint, Rauschenberg did not strive to achieve the exact environmental appearance of Atget photographs, nor the exact composition. It appears that he was striving to create an equivalence in the feeling and mood of Atget’s compositions. To see what Atget saw, but to see it anew today. As a result, we find ourselves looking at the same scene standing further back, or closer or more to one side or another, just not exactly the same. A key compositional aspect that Atget had captured may have been moved, or a new structure is now in place of where he had once stood.
Like other rephotographing projects, when you place two photographs side by side, but with a lapse of 100 years between the two, you immediately notice the changes. Much like the picture game that kids play, with two almost identical images side by side, where you have to circle the differences. In this case, the changes can be immense, with entire blocks of building now missing or perhaps new complexes standing where a park once lay.
Equally fascinating is comparing a pair of facing photographs and realize that there are only a few perceptible changes that have occurred in the last 100 years. Such as the cover photograph (and below) of Jardin du Luxembourg that Atget photographed in 1906. The seated man is now missing, but the same bench remains in the same location, as does the statuary and most of the trees. The trees, like us, have become a little stouter with the passing years, as well as now missing a limb or two. But otherwise, the content appears relatively unchanged and you could possibly mistake the Rauschenberg for the Atget photograph, if it were not for the usual softness of the Atget photographs.
The changes are obvious when entire buildings are missing or new ones have been erected. The subtle differences are the spray paint graffiti replacing the paste-up posters, both placed on the walls late at night and considered an eye-sore in their respective era. The horses and hand carts have been replace by cars and moped scooters. Interesting to see in a photograph that a bricked road has been replaced with cobblestone, probably to provide the impression that the cobblestone street is old and ancient. Perhaps not. Some of the old structures now have a modern facade, with large plate glass windows replacing old wooden doors.
Also interesting in the content of the paired photographs that some locations are still serving similar functions; a nursery selling flowers and plants, a restaurant, a clothing store, although with much newer mannequins, but not that much difference in how the clothes are displayed.
Rauschenberg did find an “Atget” fountain at Saint Cloud about the same time of year, the trees relatively barren, with a small sea of steps in the background moving in the misty background. There are some noticeable change, the fencing around the fountain has been updated and in the background, a new bushy tree has appeared. Although Rauschenberg has not created the same soft image as Atget did, he has provided a modern adaptation that still is still moody and mysterious, which I find equally esthetically delightful to that of Atget’s. Similar but uniquely different.
During Rauschenberg’s rephotographing of 500 of Atget’s scenes, he came across some non-Atget locations that were Atget-ish, and there are 10 of these photographs in a section title “In Atget’s Shoes”, for which Rauschenberg writes
“As I traveled through Paris rephotographing Atget’s images, I kept seeing places that he had not photographed but that seemed to me to be also rich with the feeling of his work. I photographed hundreds of those places I felt Atget’s spirit. I was simply walking around Paris “in Atget’s shoes”, and this is where they took me.”
It is the compare and contrast of Atget’s and Rauschenberg’s photographs that you gain insight on how both of these photographers “see”, what one left in or left out compared to the other. I knew that Atget’s photographs were soft and atmospheric, created by a number of reasons, but I did not realize how much. Likewise, it is more apparent to me of how careful Atget had been on ensuring his composition was balanced and what details he kept with in the edges of his frame. And from a technical aspect, his tripod might have been shorter than I would have thought, as his perspective is usually from about mid-waist looking across or upward, versus at eye level and downward.
It also has become more apparent to me that Atget’s aesthetics result from the seasons he chose when he photographed. We do not see any signs of snow, but he did forge into late Fall and early Spring. Perhaps to take advantage of the clear sight that resulted by the leave-less trees. And the weather had to be nice in order to entice the restaurants to bring their chairs out in the open or the retailers to display their wares on the sidewalks.
For Rauschenberg’s rephotographing of Atget’s work, especially since he was not trying to create an exact duplication, it is informative as to what is included and excluded in the side by side comparisons. Such that the content of Rauschenberg’s photographs are sharply deliniated and seem to have a longer tonal scale than Atget’s.
The hardbound book is very nicely printed and bound, and includes an informative essay by Alison Nordstrom as well as essays by Clark Worswick and Rosamond Bernier.
by Douglas Stockdale